Here’s an irony. This generation is the one most concerned with personal wellbeing than any before, yet our very pursuit to be fitter and more productive may be the cause for declining health.
Consider the things we do in the name of better living. Hitting the gym to get into shape, commuting to the office to succeed, the programmes we watch and games we play on our screens for entertainment, the pubs, clubs and dinner parties that set the scenes for our social life, the sleep at the end of it all. All of these activities are enacted behind closed doors.
If you think that still leaves plenty of outdoor time in our daily lives, you may be surprised. Studies show we think we spend 66% of our time indoors when, according to the World Health Organization, it’s actually around 90%. Now a new YouGov report, made in conjunction with home environment experts VELUX, has assessed the effects of modern indoor living, going as far as suggesting our elaborate mix of commuting, indoor work and indoor activities is not only having a detrimental effect on our health and wellbeing, but could actually be “detaching us from the natural world that has been the driving force behind our evolution as a species”.
Russell Foster, a leading ophthalmologist, points out: “From the year 1800 to 2000, we’ve moved from 90% of people working outside to less than 20%. In a very short space of time, we’ve gone from being an outdoor species to spending most of our time in dim, dark caves.”
Which all begs the question: what’s so bad about being indoors anyway?
We already knew the link between limited fresh air and daylight, and the negative impact that can have on our mood, as well as the effect unhealthy indoor environments can have on our respiratory system, but what might come as a shock is the estimation that the air inside buildings can be up to five times more polluted than the air outdoors, even in large cities. Which means your office, child’s school, and your home are all ‘probably polluted’.
How can that be? Well, think about the pollutants that emanate from toxic materials inside – from the building materials and cleaning products, to the furniture and gadgets.
Pile on the toxins released from cooking, burning candles, drying clothes indoors, and so on, not to mention that thing we do every second of the day: breathing! According to the British Standards Institution, a typical family of four emits around 1,800 litres of CO2 and 10 litres of water into the atmosphere every single day, just by breathing.
This poor level of air quality, says the United States Environmental Protection Agency, can lead to short-term symptoms such as: irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, headaches, dizziness, and fatigue.
Long-term effects can be more severe, including respiratory diseases, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and heart disease.
Studies suggest people are 40% more likely to have asthma when living in damp or mouldy homes, with 2.2 million Europeans suffering asthma linked to their living conditions. The economic costs related to treatment and medical care that arise from poor indoor air reaches €82 billion per year across Europe. Worryingly, largely due to the toxins in toys, the most polluted room in our homes tends to be the children’s bedrooms.
The good news is, a lot of the negative effects of indoor living can be minimised by more exposure to daylight. 15% of the world’s population suffers from different levels of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), thought to occur as a direct result of limited exposure to light. And the old adage about sunshine brightening your mood is absolutely true. A recent study showed light-box therapy to be several times more effective than the anti-depressant drug fluoxetine in treating non-seasonal depression.
The YouGov report urges us to be better in tune with our circadian rhythm – the internal 24-hour body clock that regulates the timing of periods of sleepiness and alertness throughout the day.
Electric light and digital devices have disrupted the natural cycles of light and dark, meaning where once the onset of darkness was trigger enough for our bodies to prepare for rest, the artificial light makes it harder – which is why so many of us now have problems with regular sleeping patterns. Quite simply, we’re not getting anywhere near as much natural light for our visual systems as we need for our circadian system. The more daylight you get, the better you’ll sleep at night.
The report calls for architects to rethink their designs, ensuring public and private indoor spaces are built with increased exposure to natural light. As well as the health benefits, the effect it has on productivity can be hugely beneficial. Studies show students with more daylight in their classrooms progressed up to 26% faster, while office workers with a natural view performed up to 25% better on tests of mental functions.
Neuroscientist Steven Lockley explains: “Light is an acute stimulant which directly alerts the brain. If you’re exposed to brighter and bluer light in the daytime, then you get a better stimulant effect. You’ll be more alert and have better cognitive function, potentially be more productive at work.”
The recommendation include creating more opportunities to be outdoors – walk or cycle to work, take your lunch at the park, just because you don’t smoke doesn’t mean you can’t take a break and go outside! When indoors, let as much daylight in as possible and take steps to freshen the air around. Avoid products containing toxic materials, don’t burn candles indoors, dry clothes outside wherever possible, keep bathroom doors closed and ventilate from the outside when bathing.
Ultimately, to effectively seize the day, you have to actually step out into it...
• The YouGov survey was compiled by interviewing approximately 16,000 members of the general public in 14 countries across Europe and North America. For further information and inspiration on better indoor living, log onto velux.co.uk/indoorgeneration.